The Power, Purpose and Place of Church Symbols

Stimulating the Imagination With Thoughts Toward God

In his book, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson highlighted the various stages that went into the construction process of their first church building and how symbol played an important role in the design.

church symbols

For instance, he described how much thought went into the placement of the pulpit, at the center of the building, with the seats all around, emphasizing the centered place that scripture should have in our lives. He went on to outline other elements as well (a good read).

My point in mentioning this is that even in church buildings where symbols may not be as defined as those in Orthodox and Catholic traditions, the symbolic can still be very much present, pointing those who attend towards a definable goal – God.

Empty Rooms and Blank Walls

In a symbol-free or symbol-less concert hall setting, which is quickly becoming the norm in many Evangelical church buildings, the sense of definition and movement towards the divine is either largely absent or unidentifiable to most people.

In such a context, what would be the point of a symbol if its significance goes largely unnoticed or uninterpreted, and its effects are mute in terms of its intended trajectory?

Blank walls can be the breeding ground for the imagination, but in what direction?

Even an artist derives inspiration, not from an empty canvas, but from images, pictures, stories and scenes played out in the mind that are normally derived from living things and episodes. A painting becomes a painting only after paint is applied, not when the canvas lies blank.

While we may laud the benefits of a symbol-free or symbol-less building, the benefits of having a variety of intentional and interpreted church symbols around the building can stimulate the imagination with thoughts toward God.

It has direction built into its design that can lead people in a specific direction – God. It would be difficult to ascertain how an empty room can have the same impact.

Taking People on an Artistic Journey

Context plays an important role. In fact, church buildings the world over, within a variety of settings and liturgical emphases, have successfully incorporated varying degrees of symbol into their buildings, creating space for the imagination to come alive.

In the end, whatever our denominational or liturgical emphases may be, taking the time to incorporate a variety of symbols within the structure of our church buildings can take people on an artistic journey of contemplation towards God and should therefore be front and center in our design.

Church gatherings and the places we gather in are more than just buildings – they are cathedrals that symbolize the coming together of God and his people. And, all of our senses need to be stimulated in order for us to more fully discover the God who looks like Jesus; a God who draws near and meets with us even within the materiality of our human structures.

Word and art need to come together in order for this to happen. Our emphasis on word is important, but art will take us to places where words alone never could.

Stimulate the senses. Stimulate the mind. Stimulate new life. Herein lies the power of church symbols.

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  • Thanks, Jeff. I grew up in a church with no icons or symbols of any kind, but God-incidences later brought me into a liturgical church. As a poet and would-be artist, I felt immediately at home with the poetic prayers and stained glass windows, and my eyes were consistently drawn to the large cross near the altar. Since then I’ve found that seeing a symbol or icon can evoke a new poem for me. Each of us is different though, so I thank God for the variety and beauty we find it in Jesus’ Name.

  • Thanks, Mary. Your experience shows the value and potential symbols can have on the heart, mind and imagination as they point us towards God.